Cleopatra’s Bag of Tricks: The Love and Beauty Secrets of Antiquity’s Women
Speed dating or online matchmaking-these may be the latest romantic trends, but the artistry of love is ancient and the desire for beauty is something altogether primitive. Searching for a mate or attempting to seduce a partner was once the work of potions and charms, animal sacrifices and amulets. While many of the old rituals may seem wildly out of step for contemporary women, there are many ancient practices that may very well initiate attraction and captivate a partner today.
Asses’ milk is not a hot commodity in the present era, but once upon the time it was an elixir by which to preserve youth and beauty. Cleopatra is believed to have placed great store in asses’ milk and was known to bathe in it not only for beauty’s sake, but because it seemed to have aphrodisiac properties. Doctors of antiquity such as Hippocrates prescribed asses’ milk to treat poisonings, nose bleeds, and infectious diseases. Asses’s milk was also the preferred nourishment for nursing infants until the twentieth century. Considered closer to breast milk than that of any other animal, it was later given to infants in delicate health because it seemed to sustain them better in many cases. With its characteristic sweet taste, asses’ milk is more commonly used in France, Italy, and parts of Spain, but its health and beauty secrets can be traced back to ancient times.
History also reports that Cleopatra added salt from the Dead Sea to her bath. This is not a far-fetched tale since ancient women in this region were known to use salt and minerals from the Dead Sea medicinally and for overall health. Today’s mineral cosmetic industry, for example, owes much to the Dead Sea cosmetic practices of antiquity. It was believed that salt from the Dead Sea had restorative powers. Ten times saltier than the ocean, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth that occurs naturally. The extraordinary composition of its brine and truly unique composition of its waters have been said to work wonders for people suffering from various health and skin disorders. The Bible states that King Solomon gave Dead Sea salts to the Queen of Sheba as a gift. It is also said that Marc Antony presented Cleopatra with a deed for the Dead Sea region after he conquered it.
Egyptian cosmetics are nearly as old as the civilization. Everyone from the very poor to royalty used them to varying degrees and of different quality. Women, as famously denoted by Cleopatra, wore black kohl to outline their eyes. Another eyeliner variation was to use ground green malachite. In Egypt painting the eyes was a general practice and women, no matter what their status, were likely to practice the application. To shadow the eyes, studies have revealed that ancient Egyptian women would paint their eyelids with a mixture of ground serpentine (a green mineral) and water. To paint their lips, women would combine animal fat and red ochre to create a cosmetic coating. The use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt is a testament to their ideals of beauty.
Ancient Egyptian women were also adept at perfume artistry. Cleanliness was an essential component of desirability for both sexes, but considering the climate, maintaining pleasant fragrance must have been challenging for those ancients. Nevertheless, even without soap, ancient Egyptians are revered for their perfumes. Typically oil, lime, and perfume were the preferred cleansing ingredients. Balanos oil, a botanical extract, was often chosen because it did not clash with the chosen perfume which might have been a combination of flowers and spices. Lime was also used to treat acne and oily skin.
The ancient Greeks dabbled heavily in perfumes and incense to create an aura of seduction. Burning resins or wood created pleasant fragrances that were considered enticing to lovers. Various scents were used for particular parts of the body. Roman baths contained shelves of jarred oils and powders used to perfume the body in pleasing scents. Some places were also synonymous with certain fragrances. For instance, the ancient women of Crete were known for their enchanting scents composed of lilies. Middle Eastern women were noted for their fragrance of frankincense and myrrh. Scent was intrinsic to ancient sexuality, and of course, it plays no small role today either.
Myrrh, prized as a fragrance, was also said to be used by the Queen of Sheba to entice King Solomon. Its ability to enhance seduction was widely known, but it also had many attributes as a beauty tonic. It was regularly used to repair chapped skin and prescribed to treat eczema-like rashes. It has been on beauty regimens for more than four thousand years. Similarly, frankincense was also used in perfumes, but ancient women believed it helped diminish wrinkles and slow down the aging process.
The use of skin cream composed of crushed and finally ground pearls was an ancient Chinese beauty ritual. It is said that pearl cream illuminated the skin. Even today, Chinese manufacturers add ground pearl to some creams. Pearls may seem too expensive to crush into beauty paste today, but bird droppings are essentially free. Japanese women were long accustomed to creating their own creams and cosmetics from natural elements and the droppings of nightingales, for one example, was a popular additive for face creams. And-it worked to restore beauty due to an enzyme within the droppings that contain healing properties. Also, it was far safer than the lead ancient Roman women used to whiten their faces.
In ancient India Vedic Texts reveal that turmeric, a native herb, was an especially important plant for women’s beauty regimens. The turmeric would be formed into a paste that women spread over their bodies before bathing. The skin would benefit from deep cleansing and revitalization. Historically, turmeric has been associated with increased longevity so it’s not surprising that it is still part of beauty regimens for some Asian women today who generally add sandalwood for greater antioxidant power.
Olive oil was the standard hair care product for ancient Greek women. It rejuvenated hair left damaged by the sun and added luster to the locks. Olive oil was also used soften the skin, beautify the nails, and repair chapped lips. Olive had many culinary and healthful uses for the ancients, but Grecian women prized it highly in their beauty rituals. Not surprisingly, Greece has many beauty products that contain olive oil today. Egyptians were also concerned with hair care, although wigs were commonly worn. However, both women and men rubbed the resin of fir trees into their scalps in the belief that it could generate hair growth. In ancient China, extracts from the beautiful butterfly pea, a climbing plant, was used to strengthen hair. Indian women favored coconut oil to give their hair luster and volume.
Furthermore, ornamentation was frequently added to enhance the beauty of the hair. Cleopatra, who certainly appeared to know all the beauty secrets, is said to have worn gems and jewels strewn through her hair. Women of other ancient cultures wore carved combs or natural elements like shells in their hair. Hairstyles could also be elaborate as depicted on Egyptian scrolls or other ancient texts. In many cultures, a thick and healthy head of hair was linked to a woman’s overall healthy and fertility.
The use of aphrodisiacs appears in nearly all cultures. Some edibles were believed to enhance women’s sexuality or increase their fertility. Ginseng, horny goat weed, and vanilla were frequently used by women of many ancient cultures. One ancient aphrodisiac is of particular note, however. The seeds of the fenugreek plant were used eaten by Egyptian, Roman, and Greek women in the belief that it increased the size of their breasts. These ancient women also believed that the plant could round their breasts to a more pleasing form. Many aphrodisiacs associated with women were believed to make them more receptive and excited about sex.
Women of Morocco, Egypt, and Persia found that jasmine was an extraordinary aphrodisiac. Bathing in a jasmine scented bath was known to relieve stress and anger. Women scented with jasmine were said to arouse great passion in men. Jasmine was also used to treat dry or sensitive skin. While not as heady, rose oil is said to be a similar type of aphrodisiac regarded by the ancients. Women hailed its calming affects. Rose oil was also used for skin care. Ancient women of Rome were known to favor lavender-scented baths.
While many seduction and beauty rituals of the ancients are considered obsolete today, there are surprising similarities between the past and the present. Favored scents, cosmetic needs, matters of seduction are all components of contemporary sexuality just as they were for the ancients. Skin care, hair care, and many other beauty rituals were important aspects of women’s lives in antiquity just as they are today. Beauty and sexuality often went hand in hand for the ancients; these aspects are at the heart of present-day civilization too.